What Goes On in the Public Bathrooms Where You're From, Exactly?
I got a lot of positive replies to my latest post defending trans people, and a lot of negative replies too, unsurprisingly. I pondered a bit about whether to publish a long response to the response; I tend to think that those kinds of back-and-forths don’t really accomplish anything. People attacked me for turning off comments, under the false pretense that I am afraid to debate. On the contrary, I’m more confident in my ability to out-argue anyone than I am in the orbits of the Moon and Sun, I was raised by wolves and trained in the halls of Shaolin, I have done this longer than you have, I am better at it than you are, I fear neither God nor man when it comes to arguing. I turned off comments because I didn’t want to spend days moderating and responding to comments and was unwilling to leave the space unmonitored; I’ve done that before, at my whim, and I will do so again. Beyond that, most of the negative responses exhibited a fundamental unseriousness, which I think is an artifact of culture war - as much nastiness as there is regarding this issue, it appears to me that the trans-affirming and “gender critical” camps have largely segregated themselves into their own spaces, and I think a lot of the people complaining about my piece are simply unaccustomed to actually debating the merits, particularly with someone like me, who can’t be pushed off of his spot through bluster alone.
With the few correspondents that I replied to, I did what I usually do when it comes to this issue: I asked them what they want. Literally, what do you who oppose so-called “trans ideology” want? What do you want that trans people won’t let you have? What do you want to do, that trans people won’t let you do? This is very instructive, and I think it points to a core reality for a lot of this “gender critical” stuff: those who espouse it are mostly motivated by feelings that trans people are freakish or revolting or ungodly, but know that such arguments have little purchase in modern society, and so dress up those feelings in a lot of argumentative kabuki that doesn’t really add up. I asked in the last post, do “gender critical” types want to prohibit trans people from referring to themselves with certain pronouns or taking a particular, gendered name? They say they don’t, and indeed, they would have no power to do so. Nor do they have the power to stop other people from respecting those pronouns and names, nor do they have the power to stop trans people from dressing how they would like, getting the gender affirming or cosmetic surgery they would like, wearing makeup…. They say they don’t want to stop any of those things. So I think it’s an important step to repeatedly ask, what then do you want to happen? What’s your goal?
In this context the bathroom thing really stands out. I think those who attack trans people understand that there’s something bizarre about elevating this issue to the top of the culture war when on the order of 2-3% of Americans, at most, identify as something other than cisgender. The vast majority of the “gender critical” go weeks or months of their lives without ever knowingly crossing paths with a trans person. The women’s sports issue is probably the area where they have the most juice in terms of public opinion, but women’s sports just aren’t treated as a very big deal by a large majority of the American population. There’s a lot of dark muttering about indoctrination in public schools, but aside from a few outlier examples (which, yes, usually appear misguided to me), there’s no evidence of some vast public school conspiracy to turn the kids trans, and anyway the states control public education and most state governments are conservative. Bathrooms, though, appear universalizing, and are thus a tempting subject to argue about. Unfortunately, the actual complaints are remarkably half-baked.
First, there’s this idea of sexual assault in women’s bathrooms. In my piece, I pointed out that the anti-trans contingent talks about this issue as though the very status of having sex-segregated bathrooms amounts to a protection against assault. As I said, this logic seems bizarre to me - someone determined to sexually assault a woman in a bathroom is not going to be deterred by a sign or policy saying that that person can’t be in there. Unsurprisingly, people who were mad about what I wrote willfully misrepresented what I was saying, suggesting that my argument was “well sexual assault happens anyway, so get over it happening more often.” But that’s not remotely my argument. My argument is that formal policies dictating sex segregations in bathrooms do nothing to actually reduce sexual assault, and can’t, and so the idea that women are losing an important protection is simply incorrect. There is no reason to believe that sex segregated bathrooms, which anyone can walk into at any time, actually protect against sexual assault and no reason to believe that bathrooms that allow transwomen increase the risk of sexual assault or any other crime.
Let me underline that last part. There is no credible evidence that the presence of transwomen in women’s bathrooms increases the prevalence of sexual assault or any other crime. Whatever dubious evidence TERFs draft into this effort universally involves a handful of anecdotal incidents, often contested, in a country with millions of shared/business/public bathrooms. (The infamous Virginia high school assault was committed by someone who used male pronouns and had never publicly indicated that he was trans or in any way gender-nonconforming.) And if we acknowledge that sex segregated bathrooms do nothing to create an impediment to sexual assault, then the only way to seek to exclude transwomen from women’s bathrooms is to base that desire on the evidence-free claim that trans people are unusually likely to commit sex crimes. This is the implication of the entire bathrooms-based approach to attacking trans rights, that transwomen are inherently sexual predators who can’t be allowed near women. But that point is usually alluded to rather than stated directly, as it is inconvenient in two senses - one, it obliterates the notion that this is about anything other than hating trans people, and two, it’s demonstrably false and is backed by no credible evidence.
But then some people say that it’s not really about sexual assault as such. Rather, the claim is that it’s triggering to women or certain classes of women to be in the presence of penises, and transwomen usually have penises, ergo we have to exclude them. I might start with the fact that these claims are made by people who mock and dismiss talk of PTSD and triggers in every other context, but alright. The bigger question is… what exactly goes on in the bathrooms where you live? The way anti-trans types talks about public restrooms sounds like something out of Mad Max. How often do you actually see another person’s genitals in the goddamn bathroom?
As an adult man I have been in public bathrooms thousands of times. I have never seen someone else’s penis. Not once. And some men’s bathrooms have urinals without dividers! I’ve never seen someone else’s penis because the way it works is, you go in, you keep your eyes trained at your feet, you pee in such a way as to minimize the chances of anyone else seeing your junk, you zip up, you wash your hands, and you walk out. This seems to pretty much represent the universal procedure. If you use a stall, you have more privacy, not less. Women’s bathrooms don’t have urinals, only stalls. So when would you see a transwoman’s penis? What kind of bathrooms are you frequenting, exactly, where people are routinely waving their genitals around? If a specific person ever aggressively presents their genitals to you, whatever kind they are, they’re already guilty of a crime and you can pursue legal action against them, if you wish. So what’s the beef? The knowledge that in another stall, behind a wall of metal, a penis exists? You come closer to penises every time you ride a crowded subway. I just don’t understand this. The harm is asserted to be totally obvious, requiring no support or explanation, when in fact the actual harm seems totally inscrutable to me. I’m sorry, but “I know there’s a naked penis I can’t see behind a wall urinating a few feet away from me” does not seem like a fear sufficient to induce public policy.
This is where the TERFy element attacks me, a man, for talking about women’s spaces. But of course there are many millions of cisgender women who are trans-affirming and who welcome transwomen into women’s bathrooms, and I’m sure some of them will be very willing to express the same sentiments I’m expressing.
Barring any unexpected developments, I’m going to leave this issue alone for a good long while. (Subscriber-only post on Saturday.) But let me point out a couple of things about the whole trans-obsessed culture war side, which is a strange amalgam of various political schools and impulses, most of them straightforwardly conservative but some not. First, here’s a little discursive point for the “gender critical” out there - your white-knuckled attachment to portraying an insouciant confidence is a mark of weakness, not strength. So, so many of the replies to me, in various places, have been expressed in this contemporary internet idiom of haha-this-is-funny-to-me false confidence. I have complained about this tendency on the left many times in the past, in part because I don’t think it helps advance any of our values but mostly because, to me, that attitude is so willful, so obviously premeditated, that it betrays insecurity exactly as it attempts to portray bravado. That applies to you, too. Being serially unserious is always a defensive maneuver and not an effective one. When so many people are trying to engage with me in this state of performative cockiness, it makes it painfully clear that you’re actually operating from a position of argumentative insecurity. Ostentatiously scoffing for each other in your echo chamber doesn’t make you look like the only ones who can see the truth. It makes you look like you’re afraid of me.
Second… I think that this wing of the culture war really demonstrates the intellectual collapse that has afflicted American conservatism as it has abandoned Christianity as its intellectual lodestar. For a long while now I’ve been talking about the apparent demise of conservative Christianity as the guiding light of the American right. Not-even-pretending-to-be-a-Christian Donald Trump’s coronation is both an obvious signpost of and an obvious catalyst for this change, but the secularization of contemporary American conservatism has been gathering strength for some time. To me, the most obvious and important evidence of such a turn lies in the simple experience of arguing with conservatives, as I have since I was an adolescent. I read my old blog from the late 2000s and I’m struck by the amount of Republican arguments I was engaging with that asserted right and wrong, moral or immoral, based on adherence to Christian scripture and (the conservative perception of) what God wants. This practice is now remarkably rare in mass media, outside of the most explicitly conservative or Christian spheres. To many conservatives of the new school, this abandonment amounts to a welcome rejection of arguments and rhetoric that make less and less sense in a rapidly-secularizing world.
And yet I think you can see the problem with the loss of Christianity as the conservative lynchpin when you look at the paucity of basic coherence and even minimal sense of proportion in anti-trans rhetoric. People were in my inbox calling “the trans issue” the most important social divide of our time, apparently beating out crime and education and the collapse of the family etc, which is truly insane. It would have made more sense under the old terms of straightforward appeals to public morality and Christian doctrine. The older school of conservative Christians would have simply denounced trans people as wicked, against God’s plan, where now those who agitate against trans rights have to jury-rig these bizarre justifications for restricting them. I would like to put it to those who insist that they don’t hate trans people but who spend endless hours agitating against them… maybe you do hate trans people? Or, at least, feel revulsion towards them, want never to have to encounter them in public? And maybe it would be a more honest, direct conversation if you could just say so, if you could just say outright that you think being trans itself is immoral, rather than opportunistically borrowing the language and tactics of the social justice left in order to justify denouncing the lives of people you half-heartedly say have the right to live that way.
I think what happened is pretty straightforward: for a variety of social and structural reasons, fighting transphobia became the most passionate project of the establishment left in the 2010s, and so (as the night the day) expressing transphobia became an essential conservative practice, a way to define oneself among their peers. The liberal project to protect trans people was noble, although I have and will acknowledge that sometimes its various expressions were misguided and counterproductive. But because liberals online became more animated about that issue than almost any other, a lot of conservatives decided “I must be their negation.” I’m not suggesting that people aren’t passionate or sincere about this; many are, although I question what inspires them. (A lot of the literal TERFs - that is, women who actually espouse radical feminist opinions alongside their “gender critical” stances - seem to be displacing a broader and deeper anger onto trans people, and are perhaps actually mad at, oh I don’t know, men.) Sincerity isn’t the point. The point is that deciding that this is the issue of our times, as many have done, rather than the economy, or foreign policy, or education, or crime, could only happen in this vacuum of meaning. Once Jesus left conservatism, it ceased to have any intellectual foundation at all, and so became profoundly vulnerable to a strange kind of capture that produces Not Liberals. Call it MAGA or the new right or whatever you would like, it’s an ideology based on getting annoyed at self-righteous Democrats. The dark irony, of course, is that this is just another way to let liberals dictate your life.
The good news is that it was fashion that made this topic a matter of such intense obsession for so many people, and as we are already undergoing a vibe shift, fashions will change. They will eventually move on to other things. The question is whether we can protect the dignity and safety of trans people, the vast majority of whom simply want to live their lives, while we wait for them to do so.